By Roland Armando Alum
The recent expansion of Protestantism throughout Latin America, considered the preeminent Roman Catholic continent since colonial times, has been of great interest to anthropologists studying religion, as Protestantism in all its forms has increasingly become a formidable contender in the “market” for Latin Americans’ souls.
The recent book, “Native Evangelism in Central Mexico” by Hugo and Jean Nutini points out that there is a phenomenon of “Native Evangelism” in central Mexico.
Their ethnography defines these native evangelist churches as Mexican-founded, sui generis, autonomous congregations, equally distinct from the traditional U.S.-influenced Protestant denominations and the similarly North American-inspired independent, mostly Pentecostal churches.
The psychology of conversion from Catholicism among the Mexicans interviewed by the Nutini couple is supported by the key theological tenets equally shared by Native Evangelism and mainline Protestantism. These principles include: the Bible is held as the unique source of religious-moral understanding; and that God is reached individually, independent of intermediaries (such as Catholicism’s saints or the earthly priests).
One key pragmatic attraction for conversion is that, alongside spirituality, Native Evangelism stresses material needs. This may explain its proselytizing success among poor campesinos, as well as the urban working and the rising middle classes.
Often, the doctrinal reasons given for conversion become ex post facto rationalizations, since converts free themselves from the monetarily onerous civic-religious obligations emblematic of rural indigenous and mestizo communities in Mexico.
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Principal among these syncretic rituals is what is called “the cargo system,” in which villagers have to take turns bankrolling the fiestas honoring local patron saints. Additionally, converts perceive Native Evangelism as more democratic in its governance than Catholicism, as well as more amenable to individual economic advancement.
A typical illustration of “material expressive culture” is a shrine-like corner in the congregants’ living-rooms displaying black-covered Bibles. Customarily, congregants conspicuously carry such bibles when leaving home, normally well-groomed, conservatively dressed and smiling.
The book identifies nine native Evangelical churches in the Tlaxcalan-Pueblan Valley and the Veracruz State’s Córdoba-Orizaba urban areas. The authors, however, focused on two contrasting ones. First, “La Luz del Mundo” — the “Mundistas,” founded in 1926, claims millions of followers in Mexico and dozens of other countries. A rather rigid organization, it opposes birth control, abortion and homosexuality, while it has been beset by corruption and sexual scandals. It subsidizes home ownership in its own almost self-contained Hermosa Provincia, a community in Guadalajara that boasts full literacy.
Second,“Amistad y Vida” — founded in 1982, is a more egalitarian congregation that elects women to leadership roles. It claims 120,000 Mexican members who appropriate the moniker Cristianos for themselves.
Despite their differences, they share commonalities. Both churches practice glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and frown upon alcohol consumption, smoking, spousal abuse, divorce and infidelity. Likewise, both encourage educational advancement, fellowship, a clean healthy life, a strong work ethic and financial self-sufficiency.
[adrotate group=”7″]Numbers vary somewhat with the source, but in the (admittedly almost-outdated) 2010 CID-Gallup statistics, out of the 20 Latin American nations, Mexico ranked 15th with a Protestant population (11.6 percent vs. 76.3 percent self-identified Catholics). Said demographic minority, however, more than doubled in the prior two decades, naturally counting the children of already-converted families.
Only time can tell what will happen to this growing religious population, and how it will affect the rest of Latin American culture as a result. Meanwhile, the Nutinis’ Mexican volume may serve as a model for understanding such trends, and for other comparable studies about Protestant evangelism elsewhere in Latin America.
This column is based on a shorter writing published in the AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST (Journal of the American Ethnological Society; Feb./2016), adapted and expanded by the author expressly for PanAm Post.